How to teach rationality (or anything)

First of all, I don’t want to teach rationality, because I’m an emotion-hating guy with a number-fetish.

No, one of the main reasons (among many other altruistic motivations) is that I wish people would understand me and what I am living for. A prerequisite for this is knowing the epistemological operating principles of my mind, i.e. how to update beliefs through bayesian evidence accumulation (pretty cryptical explanation, I know).

Anyway, if you want to teach rationality to a wider audience, you should first find the best method for doing so.

Intuitively, teaching rationality through abstract theory as well as concrete examples makes the most sense. Below one paper that corroborates our intuitions:

Fong et al. (1986) trained subjects in the law of large numbers (i.e. that large samples are more informative than smaller samples). Group 1 received formal training and learned abstract rules, group 2 was shown how to apply the law of large numbers in concrete examples, group 3 received both types of training and group 4 received no training.

Group 1, 2 and 3 improved their statistical reasoning. So we know that teaching rationality (or at least the law of large numbers) actually works. But more importantly, Group 3 improved even more than group 1 and 2.

Furthermore: The learning-through-examples-approach (aka guided induction) also greatly improves generalizability, i.e. subjects also improved in domains in which they weren’t explicitly trained. Which is exactly what I aim for.

Even more interesting is another study by Nisbett and Borgida (1977). They told students about the famous “helping experiment” (actually happened, too lazy to find the reference), where one confederate seemed to have a seizure and only 4 out of 15 subjects responded immediately. 6 did nothing and 5 waited for so long that the confederate would have probably died.

Most students are surprised when they first hear about this because they think other humans are nice and sane (guess they never grokked the holocaust on a gut level). It gets worse: Even after learning about this study most people still don’t change their beliefs about human nature:  

Nisbett and Borgida then showed the students a video of an alleged participant in the afore-mentioned “helping experiment”. The videos were bland and revealed no special information. The students should then give the probability that this participant would help immediately. Now, a good Bayesian knows that he has no special information, can only rely on the base rate and says: “Around 27% (4 divided by 15)”.

What did the students say? Around 90% or something crazy like this. Which shows that just teaching people about base rates, statistics and numbers without concrete examples does absolutely nothing.

But don’t despair, there is a way out: When Nisbett and Borgida showed the students first videos of some alleged participants and then told them that these participants didn’t help the victim immediately, the students began to grok the gruesome facts about human nature!

In conclusion: If you wanna teach people rationality (or anything), hit them with concrete, visual examples and not only lifeless statistics. Humans are mad.


Borgida, Eugene and Richard E Nisbett (1977), “The Differential Impact of Abstract vs Concrete Information on Decisions,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 7 (July), 258-271.

Lehman; Lempert; Nisbett. (1988): The effects of graduate training on reasoning: Formal discipline and thinking about everyday-life events.

Fong, Krantz, Nisbett, (1986): The effects of statistical training on thinking about everday problems.

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